There is something that I watch in the work of couples therapy that I believe is crucial for me to take home as well, that is, opening up softly. “Opening up softly” is the opposite of “harsh startups,” a term I learned from John Gottman, the “country’s foremost relationship expert,” as he calls himself. Dr. Gottman is very renowned, has gathered a great deal of research, and devoted his life’s work to understanding and helping treat couples that are in trouble. Harsh startups occur when one (or both) partners jump right in loudly and accusingly towards the partner. Really, this is something to work at getting better about. Truly, if you are a person using harsh startups, it is time to work on approaching your partner in another way.
As I said above, this is something that I take home and check on in my own relationship. I don’t think my partner or I use harsh startups very often if at all. But maybe sometimes I get close, maybe I jump in strongly with some accusation. What I am working on personally as well as when it comes up in couples therapy is to shift from anything like a harsh startup to more measured opening, a softer opening to what is being said. And, as you know if you have read many of my blogs, this would also involve moving from accusing my spouse to looking at what I am doing, what I am responsible for in the interaction, in the accusation.
Let’s take an example. I recently had felt that my partner was not touching me as much as usual, and I didn’t like that. A harsh startup would look like: “What’s wrong with you that you don’t touch me anymore!” That would not be something I would usually say, but I might say, if I don’t watch myself, if I don’t work on how I say things, I might say something like, “How come you don’t touch me as much as you use to?” If that question has harshness to it, it is quite different from when it is said softly and without malice, if it is said with ones own feelings rather than blame of the partner. A next step in getting further away from harsh startups would be to say something that is about oneself and slip in something about your/my partner. Like, “I miss you touching me. What going on with you?” This is getting much better, but let’s go for the best way usually to approach this. So the way that I hope I would say it to my partner would be, “I miss you touching me. Am I doing something wrong?” The accusation is out but the issue is still in the mix. The harsh startup is gone. And more meaningful conversation is being opened up. And this last way is much more likely to move the couple to meaningful conversation rather than a fight.
Dr. Robert G. Kraft is a career psychologist in Omaha, NE. He earned his doctorate, as well as his bachelors and masters before that, from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Has practiced in Nebraska ever since.
As well as maintaining his practice, Dr. Kraft is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Creighton University School of Medicine, where he teaches residents about psychotherapy.